Aug. 4, 2013 -- A new law went into effect in Germany on Thursday guaranteeing every child over 12 months of age a slot at a daycare facility. The government hopes the policy will help reverse one of Europe's lowest birth rates.
When Irena Schauk learned that her 14-month-old son would not be receiving a place in a daycare center in Berlin's central Mitte district, the news disappointed the mother, but came as little surprise. The struggle to find slots at the Kita -- short for Kindertagesstätte, the German word for a nursery -- can be Sisyphean for working parents in some parts of the country. Schauk, 29, says she'd been hearing Kita war stories for years.
"I had heard about parents outbidding one another and offering extravagant gifts to nursery managers," Schauk says. She adds that several other acquaintances also received rejection letters -- with one family finding a slot in an inconveniently located daycare center and another mother instead opting to stay home to care for her child.
A new law in Germany that went into effect on Thursday seeks to improve the situation for working parents like Schauk. Under the new rules, all parents with a child aged 12 months or older have the right to a slot in a daycare center. Previously, the rule applied only to parents with children aged three or older. It also provides any parent whose child is denied a slot with a legal provision to challenge the decision, though some have warned the option could prove expensive and might not make a difference anyway -- especially if there literally is no daycare option available in a community.
In the run-up to the new law, the German media has been filled with reports about a rush to build new daycare centers across the country to meet the additional demand. Last year, a national drug store chain went bust, and some of the empty retail spaces are now being transformed for use as new daycare centers. Because the centers lack playgrounds, children are brought to nearby parks for outdoor physical activity. One company even claims to have delivered several hundred Quonset hut-like containers for use as Kitas. Communities are improvising across Germany to abide by the law, converting warehouses, theaters and even car repair shops into daycare centers. The problems are particularly acute in densely populated urban areas like central Munich, where little real estate is available for new daycare centers.
Despite a pledge by German Family Minister Kristina Schröder that a sufficient number of daycare places would be available by the August 1 deadline, experts have warned that in urban areas especially, the government's goal is little more than wishful thinking. In many areas, the infrastructure isn't even in place to accommodate the children. Only three weeks ago, the German Association of Cities warned that 90,000 of the more than 800,000 daycare slots pledged by Schröder still weren't ready.
And that's not the only problem: In some parts of Germany, cities are having a hard time attracting the people to the profession that it needs. Daycare professionals here are underappreciated and underpaid. One Munich daycare center has even recruited workers from debt crisis-plagued Greece to help fill the gap. In larger cities like Frankfurt, many daycare centers are having trouble finding employees. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the government underestimated how high demand would be. The Family Ministry originally assumed that parents of only one-third of children that meet the criteria would register their kids for Kita slots. The figure has since been revised to 39 percent, but in some cities, like Heidelberg or Frankfurt, the actual demand is already surging to 50 percent.
For every Irena Schauk, there's also a Hannah Dahlmeier, a 31 year old, Munich-based architect recently profiled in SPIEGEL. A university student at the time, Dahlmeier began looking in Munich for a daycare slot for her future child seven years ago when she was only in her 16th week of pregnancy. After receiving rejection after rejection, she finally had to become a stay-at-home mom. It was only after two years of regularly searching that she finally found a slot. It was like "winning the lottery," she recalled. For women like Dahlmeier in many parts of Germany, getting a future child on the waiting list for a daycare slot is something that often happens before the baby bump is even showing.
Beyond infrastructure, personnel and other issues, there is a more fundamental problem that is a source of worry: the nagging one of quality. A recent report commissioned by the Federal Families Ministry and conducted by some of the most renowned educational theorists in the country found that the quality of teaching in the vast majority of daycare facilities is either mediocre or seriously lacking. Only three percent overall were deemed to be of "good" quality.
In Germany, education laws are determined by the states, but when it comes to curricula at daycare institutions, the rules are deliberately vague, with major differences across different regions. As SPIEGEL recently noted, politicians shy away from more binding curricula because they know that child care facilities could start to have problems very quickly.
But there's a cost to this, too. The study also evaluated some 2,000 children between the ages of two and four, who were divided into groups based on diverse criteria. The study found that children in only 2.6 percent of those groups were being provided with the kind of stimulation that would later help them with reading, mathematics, the sciences and other important areas of education. It also concluded that Germany's current child care infrastructure doesn't promote equal opportunities among different socio-economic groups, a problem that is being especially felt among the growing number of children of immigrant families. The researchers said that Germany's child care offerings are especially helpful to "well-educated German middle-class families," but not to "socially disadvantaged families or families with fewer educational resources."
The daycare situation is particularly dire in western states like Baden-Württemberg and North Rhine-Westphalia, where in urban areas there are three infants for each available daycare spot. Eastern regions are less affected, partly because state child care was already the norm in East Germany, where the idea of working women was part of the model of socialist society. The infrastructure remained in place after reunification.
Meanwhile, there is widespread consensus, also in the West, that no German mother should have to stay at home looking after her children if she would rather work. In 1992, the government decided that children from the age of three should have the legal right to daycare, with the initiative expanded further in 2008 to include toddlers over 12 months.
Though the initiative to expand the country's daycare infrastructure is costing the German government some €12 billion ($16 billion), worryingly little emphasis is being placed on the actual quality of teaching and the working conditions for educators.
The lack of child care provision is a permanent component of the German political agenda, mainly because of the country's extremely low birth rate. One government in Berlin after the other has relentlessly tried to reverse the downward spiral, with the legal right to daycare only one of myriad policies aimed at encouraging potential parents.
Germany spends some €200 billion ($270 billion) on promoting children and families each year and yet its birth rate, at 1.39 per woman aged 15 to 49, remains among the lowest in Europe. Though many experts doubt the effectiveness of many of the country's family policies, the current government is hoping that a combination of parent-friendly initiatives can begin to tackle the problem of "Schrumpfnation Deutschland" (shrinking Germany). Chancellor Angela Merkel has also pursued a broader approach intended to create stronger links between the family and the workplace.
Early on in her tenure, Merkel instituted parental leave benefits that are widely considered some of the most generous in Europe. Under the program, parents can receive up to 65 percent of their monthly salary over a period of up to 14 months.
More recently, the chancellor put the expansion of all-day schools back on the agenda. German primary schools finish earlier than elsewhere in Europe -- sometimes as early as 11 a.m. -- which makes it harder for mothers in particular to combine work and family.
The government is hoping that it can also make establishing families more attractive with its new child care pledge -- and there is in fact evidence the push could actually help. The researchers responsible for a report commissioned by the Family Ministry and completed earlier this year into the costs and benefits of the country's family policy, claim there is empirical evidence of a correlation between the availability of preschool places and birthrate. In certain rural districts of western Germany, they found that an increase in the number of daycare spots for children by 10 percent led to an increase in the birth rate to 3.5 percent from 2.4 percent within two years. With additional reporting by SPIEGEL Staff.